Liberia: Extolling President J.J. Roberts, Kyb Bemoans Neglected Education Sector

Mr. Kenneth Y. Best delivering his keynote address at the J.J. Roberts 210th Anniversary celebration, held at the First United Methodist Church in Monrovia

The founder and publisher of the Daily Observer newspaper says he deeply regrets the continuous neglect of the educational wellbeing of Liberian children who lag behind their counterparts in the sub-region as the country's education sector is governed by absolute mediocrity.

Mr. Kenneth Y. Best (KYB), said successive Liberian leaders have failed to emulate the good example set by Liberia's first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, by prioritizing the education of Liberian children.

Describing the nation's first President as "a visionary with a heart of gold," Mr. Best said that President Roberts, determined to see Liberian children, especially the underprivileged and vulnerable ones, excel in education, established the J.J. Roberts Educational Foundation (JJREF) and bequeath to it a huge portion of his properties. The foundation was placed in the care of the First Methodist Church, President Roberts' church.

This noble decision, which has continued to ensure that hundreds of Liberian children in every generation obtain primary, secondary and tertiary education, according to Mr. Best, set the late former President Roberts far apart from the rest of the country's 23 Presidents.

Serving as the keynote speaker at the celebration of President Roberts' 210th birth anniversary, held at First Church on Ashmun Street, Monrovia, the veteran journalist said J.J. Roberts remains the only Liberian leader that has given so much to educating Liberian children.

"Roberts is the first and so far the only Liberian President and one of the few African Heads of State, if there are any others, who in his Last Will and Testament, remembered to leave a portion of his property and other possessions exclusively and purposefully for the founding of schools and educational buildings for the enduring benefit of the educational achievement of the young and future generations of Liberians," Mr. Best declared.

As the sector practically lies in ruins, even after 143 years since J.J. Roberts' death, many Liberians can't envision what the country would have been like if such a visionary leader, with love of education and love for Liberian children yet unborn, were still around--or at least if his legacy were perpetuated by successive leaders.

Mr. Best lauded the foundation's chairperson, Clarine Roberts, and her team's positive initiative in faithfully maintaining and upholding this great Foundation, and for fulfilling the wishes of this great, generous yet humble man.

Mr. Best said he strongly believed that J.J. Roberts, who was at the time Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth, serving under Governor Thomas Buchanan, played a leading role in the founding in 1839, of the College of West Africa (CWA). CWA, which is situated within the same block as First Church, soon became a first class secondary institution that trained most Liberian leaders and citizens in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Without mincing his words at the ceremony, KYB declared, "It is very sad and hardly forgivable that many of President J.J. Roberts' successors did not take education seriously." "Even more devastating and painful is that his fellow Methodist, herself a 1955 graduate of CWA, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and "by far the most schooled of all Liberian Presidents, left the nation's educational system, by her own admission, 'in a mess,' and, to put it more candidly, in shambles."

Not only that, he lamented. She bequeathed to the Liberian people a successor government riddled with incompetents and an educational system many of whose principals themselves do not know where they are going.

Students parading through the principal streets of Monrovia on March 15, as part of the program commemorating the 201th birth anniversary of Liberia's first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Mr. Best provided what he termed as two tragic examples of this grim reality, namely: the "free tuition" pronouncement at the state-run University of Liberia and the lack of financial assistance to the nation's premier technical and vocational high school, the Booker T. Washington, that recently, as a result, had to be temporarily shut down.

"At the spur of the moment one day few months ago, President Weah showed up at the University of Liberia's main campus on Capitol Hill and announced that from that day hence forth, tuition at UL would be absolutely free. While this initiative was laudable and good, said Mr. Best, President Weah did not discuss that major decision with the UL president, who was at the time out of the country, or with other government officials.

"Since then, the UL has received little or no money from the government. With no fees being collected, how is the university expected to equip its laboratories and libraries, pay its teachers and staff, or hire highly qualified and outstanding professors to enable UL to compete with other universities in the sub-Region or abroad?" the keynote speaker asked.

He added that this grim financial has compelled the nation's leading technical and vocational high school, BWI, recently to be temporarily closed. "This is due to the failure of the government to furnish BWI with the basic finances needed to purchase food and other necessities, prompting the Principal to close down the school three weeks ago."

With tears running down his eyes, and the eyes of many in the audience, Mr. Best shouted, "Oh, President J.J. Roberts, how we miss you! How we miss a President who not only during his day, but long, long after him, would think of and leave money to support the education of succeeding generations of Liberian children!"

Mr. Best noted that Roberts did not get his riches through corruption while in government, but rather through entrepreneurship--bringing into the question the integrity of current leaders. According to the great historian, Charles Henry Huberich, "J.J. Roberts and his two brothers, John and Henry Roberts, started a trading firm that became one of the most prosperous in the Liberian Colony. It was through business that J.J. Roberts made his money," Best said.

"If today we remember this great man for nothing else--and there are so many great things we remember him for today--let us remember that he made his money not after, but BEFORE he became President," Mr. Best recalled.

In remarks, Monrovia City Mayor, Jefferson Koijee, who represented the government at the occasion, noted that President Weah and the CDC government are doing all they can to improve the education sector. He described the President as a lover of education and, as such, would do all in his power to invest in the sector to make it more vibrant and viable.

JJEF Chairperson, Clarine Roberts, said the foundation will continue to keep the dream of former president Roberts alive by providing opportunities for Liberian children to be educated. She, however, frowned on beneficiaries, who upon graduation, never come back to identify with or show appreciation to the foundation.

A beneficiary of the scholarship, Wonderlyn Wiefur, described J.J. Roberts as the greatest Liberian president so far. "He was a visionary leader whose initiative we continue to benefit from today.

"If we had just a few of the 24 presidents we have had doing what the JJREF is doing, many parents will not be struggling to educate their children. Unfortunately, J.J. Roberts is the only one who had this vision," Wiefur said.

The J.J. Roberts 210th anniversary celebration began with a parade by a cross-section of students, many of them beneficiaries of the J.J. Roberts scholarships, through the principal streets of Monrovia. The parade proceeded to the J.J. Roberts grave at the Palm Grove Cemetery on Center Street, and on to the J.J. Roberts Monument near the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel, where wreaths were laid.

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